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Behind Enemy Lines: Even Athletics Nation isn’t sure how the Oakland A’s are this good

We asked Alex Hall of Athletics Nation about what has gotten into the Oakland A’s recently.

Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers kick off their final West Coast road trip of the season on Friday, starting with a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics. The Tigers and A’s have enjoyed a friendly rivalry of sorts over the past decade, though A’s fans might not think it so friendly because of the one-sided results in the playoffs.

This year, it has been one-sided in the other direction. The A’s came to Comerica Park in late June and bulldozed the Tigers, winning four straight games. Fans didn’t know it then, but that series was the start of something special. Dating back to June 16 (just before the series in Detroit), the A’s are 30-10, and have roared back into Wild Card contention.

In order to get to know more about these A’s, we spoke with Alex Hall, editor-in-chief of Athletics Nation, SB Nation’s excellent A’s community.

1. The A’s were supposed to be better this year, but all of a sudden they’re in the Wild Card hunt and on pace to win 94 games. What happened?

Two main things happened. The lineup reached its best-case scenario, and the bullpen stepped up.

The A’s lineup was good in the second half of 2017 with the arrival of some top prospects, so it was supposed to be a plus entering this season. But it’s been even better than we’d hoped, with all kinds of pleasant surprises. Jed Lowrie followed up his career-year with an even better career-year at age 34, Mark Canha had the breakout we’ve been waiting years for, and Stephen Piscotty has been on fire for two months. Matt Joyce got hurt, but some guy named Nick Martini came up and became awesome in his place. On top of all that, Khris Davis looks like he’ll hit 40 dingers again as usual, and Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are becoming the stars we’d hoped. The whole group is particularly adept at late-inning comebacks, which has helped add some extra wins to the ledger. Look out for long at-bats and long homers.

In the bullpen, Blake Treinen suddenly became an elite closer. When Oakland acquired him I thought he was a setup man faking it as a closer, but he learned how to retire lefty hitters and now he’s lights-out. Lou Trivino wasn’t even on prospect lists until this past winter, but now he’s the next failed-starter-turned-high-velocity-setup-man success story. That pair can combine for up to four innings of shutdown relief, which helped the A’s maximize the concept of shortening the game in the first half of the season when they had basically no starting rotation. They still have a weak rotation, but now they’ve added Jeurys Familia to the bullpen mix.

Every handful of years, the A’s suddenly get good and surprise everyone. This is turning out to be one of those years, thanks to their current 30-10 run since mid-June. Even we didn’t think they’d have a chance at the playoffs.

2. Matt Chapman had a solid rookie season in 2017, but has taken a huge step forward this year. Now Nolan Arenado says Chapman is better than him. Is Chapman a true superstar, or is there something here he can’t sustain going forward?

Matt Chapman is the truth, and before long he will be routinely considered a top 10 player in the sport. In all sincerity, he is already a better overall player than Josh Donaldson ever was. His defense is from another planet, his bat is only getting better, and he’s the fastest runner on the team. His success passes the eyeball test in every conceivable way

3. Somehow, the A’s are nearly 20 games above .500 despite having just one pitcher with at least 100 innings thrown so far this year. How have they made it work?

Scientists are working furiously to figure that out. They’ve had a ton of injuries, including four Tommy John surgeries (Jharel Cotton, Kendall Graveman, Daniel Gossett, and top prospect A.J. Puk). The A’s have had eight MLB starters go on the DL and used a total of a dozen different starters overall. The current rotation includes Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Edwin Jackson. In 2018.

And yet somehow, those guys show up and throw five decent innings most days, and the bullpen takes care of the rest. It’s mostly Treinen and Trivino (and now Familia), but Yusmeiro Petit and Ryan Buchter have been mostly reliable as well. And anytime the pitching doesn’t quite get it done, the lineup just puts together a wild comeback in the 8th inning to earn the win that way. It’s not the most sustainable way to operate, but they’ve made it work so far.

4. Khris Davis has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball since the All-Star break, but will be due a fairly significant raise soon. Do the A’s plan on extending Davis before or at free agency, or will he eventually be flipped like many other stars have been in the past?

The latest report (about a month ago) was that the two sides were discussing a multi-year deal. Athletics Nation is overwhelmingly in favor of giving him a three-year contract (through 2021), and we think there’s a good chance it happens. Arbitration is going to award him an obscene number next winter and the A’s would be wise to work out something more reasonable. They paid to keep Coco Crisp around, so there is precedent for extending a productive fan favorite despite the team’s normal reputation for letting everyone go.

5. Are you sure the A’s don’t want Mike Fiers? He’s really this good, we promise.

We got 1,002 votes on our post-deadline poll, with the question being whether the A’s did enough on the trade market. The option “No, they should have added depth like Mike Fiers or Derek Dietrich” got 16 percent of the vote. That was third out of four options, behind “No but there wasn’t another realistic deal I wanted” (53%) and “Yes, Familia was enough” (23%).

If the A’s did end up getting Fiers, though, he honestly would be an upgrade over at least Brett Anderson. It’s just that the folks at Athletics Nation wouldn’t offer a whole lot for him. We really really do want another starter, though.

Once again, a big thank you goes out to Alex and the rest of the Athletics Nation staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Athletics Nation for the very best A’s news coverage and analysis, especially as they continue their march toward the postseason and their inevitable conquest of the very dumb New York Yankees.